Three UT Honors Program students recently competed in the AACS Client Problem Solving Competition. The problem was introduced during the first day of the conference and students had only two days to come up with their solutions. This year’s problem involved a local service agency in Denver, the ECDC-ACC. They work in the area of refugee resettlement and are facing a severe shortage of affordable housing for incoming refugee families. To compound the problem, refugees have been stigmatized as risky tenants for two reasons: first, there have been a few incidences where residents have unknowingly taken actions that caused damage to the property (e.g. cooking fish in the dishwasher, washing cooking oil down sink drains, placing hot pots on the floor as families gathered for traditional-style meals), and second, the State Department covers refugee housing for only their first three months, and after that, while refugees still receive financial assistance for living expenses, there is nothing set aside for housing in particular, and the total monthly allowance is not enough to cover the rent in full alongside everyday expenses. Refugees’ only option is to try become employed as quickly as possible. Yet, given limited language proficiency, a laborer job that offers more than the minimum wage is unlikely. So, not only is there a shortage of affordable housing, there is also a reluctance to lease those spaces to refugee families as well, in addition to the critical issue of employment that pays a family wage.
To better understand the problem, our students went to the ECDC-ACC and interviewed both the housing specialist as well as the jobs specialist and learned in-depth about all their programs as well as the challenges they faced. We learned that the ECDC-ACC operates a thrift store that is both frequented by refugees for household supplies as well as largely run by former refugees themselves. So we went to the store and spoke with several refugees about their experiences adjusting and integrating into the Denver community. From their perspective, there didn’t seem to be a shortage of housing in the area, just a shortage of housing they could afford on a minimum wage. In addition, in many families, only one adult member of the household worked outside the home, as the second adult member cared for the many young children common to the refugee family composition. From there we visited the housing resettlement areas and saw the low-rise multi-family dwellings that were in such demand. There were community gardens, children playing in the field behind the housing area, and small groups of people enjoying ice cream cones from a nearby shop. By the day’s end, our students had developed a much deeper understanding of the problems as well as inspiration to develop viable solutions. They didn’t want to just participate in the competition anymore, it was so much more, they had become invested in really coming up with a solution that could help improve the lives of refugee families.
Our team developed both short- and long-term solutions. The short-term ideas were aimed at helping refugee tenants take care of their rental properties and utilizing social media to facilitate the ECDC-ACC to connect with potential new landlords. Their long-term solutions were guided by theories of social capital. They came up with a list of initiatives that would develop bonds between tenants and property owners, new refugees and existing refugee families, between the refugee community and other social institutions such as places of worship, schools, and workplaces. They also proposed a micro lending enterprise after their research showed that it had worked in a similar situation in Oregon. Specifically, there are only two places in Denver where Muslim women may purchase head scarves. The ECDC-ACC already had a sewing group in place as a community activity. Our team proposed creating a small business through making and selling the scarves with a micro loan. As you can see, our team had many creative and interesting ideas, all with an eye to thinking sociologically about the problems and solutions.
Ashley, Melissa, and Summer gave a theory-driven, field-researched, thoughtful and creative applied sociology presentation that received praise from faculty, practitioners, and fellow students alike. Miriam Broeri, the AACS organizer of the competition, indicated that the UT team was just a point or two away from winning. This is a great start for our program and I thank our three students for all their hard work and congratulate them for representing UT so well.
-Contributed by Lakshmi Jayaram, Assistant Professor of Sociology